Theater Review: STYLE AND GRACE: IN TRIBUTE TO LENA HORNE AND NANCY WILSON (Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 24, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


With this theater everything good is new again — and never old. The latest homage from Black Ensemble Theater, Style and Grace: In Tribute to Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson honors stellar singers whose consummate talents we lost in 2010 and 2018, respectively. Incarnating “impeccable style and enduring grace,” these divas were also singers’ singers, always perfecting their craft on stage and screen and fully earning their legends. The ladies set each other off very well — the sweet byplay between the four talents inhabiting these superstars creates a charming collaboration.

Written and directed by B.E.T. associate director Kylah Frye, this efficient 130-minute offering details their divergent careers, with Nancy Wilson overcoming timidity and the more driven Lena becoming, not just an MGM sensation in Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky, but a civil rights icon despite the liability of having a white husband.

But what mostly matters on this stage are the recreations: Twenty-one signature songs detail their flair for selling notes and their emotional underpinning of even the blandest lyrics.

Performed by Aeriel Williams as Young Lena and Chantee Joy as Mature Lena, Lena Horne returns as a confident performer who wanted happiness at home as much as her name on a marquee. From her Cotton Club days (“The Calloway Boogie”) and her partnership with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (“I’m Just Wild About Harry”), her smoky voice and sultry looks delivered all kinds of goods.

Other Horne hits, beautifully delivered by Williams and Joy, are “Honey Suckle Rose,” “Satin Doll,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)”, “I Wish You Love,” “Just One of Those Things,” and “Night and Day.” With every note this tall trooper Aeriel could raise a standard to superior status. Joy’s concluding “Believe in Yourself” could bring down any house.

Jayla Craig as the young Nancy Wilson and B.E.T. favorite Rhonda Preston as her later self chronicle the range and durability of this born belter. “Broken Hearted Melody,” “Guess Who I Saw Today,” “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)”, “Face It Girl,” and “The Greatest Performance of My Life” — these testify to a professional heart-breaker who knew how to meet a song (and an audience) and make them lifelong friends.

Though smaller in cast and shorter in length than past B.E.T. productions, nothing seems shirked in Frye’s very sincere salute, buttressed as always by the superb and faithful musical direction of Robert Reddrick and his seven-man combo.

photos courtesy of Black Ensemble Theater

Style & Grace:
In Tribute to Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on June 30, 2019
for tickets, call 773.769.4451
or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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